As someone fascinated by family dramas, I saw a trailer for Rachel Getting Married and was instantly intrigued. I remember when the film was being released, looking at who directed it and reacting in shock: this film is from the same person who made a movie about Hannibal? It was then that I began to explore Jonathan Demme’s filmography, and discovered a staggering versatility. Demme has made comedies, dramas, horror, concert films, documentaries and more, all with considerable aplomb.
Jonathan Demme’s filmography shows a man passionate about the outsider: single mothers, the working class, the AIDS victim, the addict, the slave, and more are investigated by Demme’s lens. America is at the core of much of his work, and a fascination with landscapes and a desire to understand the dreams and desires of the everyday American are explored through his films. Many of his films have a glowing warmth at their core, and his focus on the characters, allowing his characters to propel the action instead of having actions propel them has allowed him to create some of cinema’s most intriguing and unique films. In honour of one of the most versatile directors in film history, here are five great films directed by Jonathan Demme, listed in chronological order.
Crazy Mama (1975)
Demme began his filmmaking career with the exploitation film, working alongside the legendary Roger Corman. Starring Cloris Leachman, Crazy Mama is the second of three films Demme directed for Corman’s New World Productions. Leachman plays Melba, who runs a beauty parlor with her mother and daughter. When the landlord comes to demand the rent money they cannot provide, the three generations of women flee, and embark on a rollicking crime spree across America. Crazy Mama is a blast to watch, and it gives a sense of what Demme is capable of as director, while also being an entertaining film in its own right. Demme’s fascination with American landscapes, evocative use of close-ups and great taste in music are all evident here, and help make Crazy Mama a valuable entry in Jonathan Demme’s oeuvre.
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Leaving the world of exploitation behind, Demme got his first taste of major critical acclaim with Melvin and Howard. The film won two Oscars for Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen. It is based on the peculiar real-life event in which a Utah gas station owner Melvin Dummar was listed as the beneficiary of a staggering sum in a will allegedly written by the legendary Howard Hughes. If this sounds complicated, don’t fret: Demme’s film possesses an almost beautiful simplicity, and is a wonderful portrait of chasing the American dream. Demme’s camera takes us to a normally unseen Utah, with such a warm and engaging twist that allows the characters to shine. Melvin and Howard takes a bizarre news headline and turns it into a beautifully written, portrait of Americana. It also cemented Demme’s tremendous ability to evoke great performances.
Something Wild (1986)
After the success of Melvin and Howard, Demme was tapped to direct Swing Shift, a star vehicle for Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. Unfortunately, the film endured an extremely complicated production, and Demme even called it the worst experience of his career at the time.
Thankfully, he rebounded massively with Something Wild, a genre bending film starring Melanie Griffiths and Jeff Daniels. The plot defies a simple explanation, and Something Wild excels not only because of its performances, but because of a boundless energy that flows through it. It is boldly unpredictable: bouncing from the hysterical and lighthearted to distressing and menacing at the blink of an eye. Consistently oft-kilter, frequently kinky and always entertaining, and once again making use of Demme’s masterful understanding of music, Something Wild represents a great director at the top of his game.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
One of three films in the history of the Academy Awards to sweep the major categories, The Silence of the Lambs very much represents the highest point of Demme’s commercial and critical success. It isn’t hard to see why, as the film has two tremendous performances wrapped in a perfectly-paced thriller. On the outset, it seems odd that a filmmaker like Demme (whose career up to this point largely of comedies, concert films and documentaries) would make a horror film. However, Demme’s extraordinary flexibility made him a natural fit for the part. His use of close-ups has never been more memorable than Anthony Hopkins staring directly into the camera, horrifying millions all over the world.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
After the massive success of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia Demme faded into relative obscurity. He made several concert films and documentaries, and a few box-office flops, including Beloved and The Truth About Charlie. Demme adopted a sort of documentary-style filmmaking for the intimate Rachel Getting Married. Starring Anne Hathaway as a woman released from rehab to go to her sisters wedding, the film is a compelling portrait of a collective family trauma, and how it effects various members of the family, particularly Hathaway’s character. Though the performances are universally solid, Hathaway stands out, delivering a raw, enigmatic and hugely engaging portrait of a woman suffering from loss and addiction.